We continue our series on « Les Plus Beaux Villages de France »
An hour’s drive west of Aix-en-Provence, the Alpilles mountain chain lifts its chiseled profile to the sky. Girdled by olive groves, almond orchards and vineyards, it is crowned by a naked rock spur, from which rise the dramatic ruins of the medieval citadel of Les Baux, the independent realm of the Seigneurs des Baux, known in all the region as a fierce and proud “race of eagles”. From their lofty eyrie, this dynasty of warlords, among the mightiest megalomaniacs to rampage through the Middle Ages in Provence, ruled with an iron hand in an iron gauntlet over all they surveyed – some 79 fiefs in total. They claimed to be direct descendants of Balthazar, one of the Three Magi, and to drive their assertion home, displayed the 16-pointed star of Bethlehem on their coat-of-arms.
They were as bloodthirsty as they were powerful. Raymond de Turenne (1389 – 1399), the most infamous among them, terrorized the countryside with his pillaging and raping, which he varied with a special hobby of his: forcing prisoners to “walk the plank” off the top of the citadel. Reportedly, he found this so side-splittingly funny that it made him almost ‘die’ laughing.
In 1426, the uppity princedom of les Baux was incorporated into Provence and downgraded to a barony, but its insolence continued. In 1483, for example, the barony revolted against Louis XI; in retaliation he had part of the fortress dismantled. After Provence became part of France in 1486, a period of relative calm intervened, with considerable restoration work done on the citadel and some lovely Renaissance houses built in the village behind it. But les Baux soon returned to its rabble-rousing ways, becoming a stronghold of Protestantism and an irritating thorn in the side of the French Catholic church. In 1632, Cardinal Richelieu, thoroughly fed up with the never-ending insubordination of this rocky little upstart, finally ordered the citadel and ramparts torn down and made the inhabitants pay the demolition costs!
Les Baux became a ghost village, with the chill wind of oblivion blowing through the abandoned, crumbling eagle’s nest, its deserted lanes and empty houses. It took a mineralogical discovery and a culinary conqueror to revive the memory of its turbulent past and breathe new life into the village.
The mineral was bauxite, the main ore in aluminium, discovered in Les Baux in 1821 and named after it. But the village’s bauxite resources ran out in the 20th C and it took a modern-day seigneur to bring new glory to les Baux. When Raymond Thuilier opened l’Oustau de Baumanière at the foot of les Baux in 1945, heads of state, artists and celebrities began to flock to the luxurious hotel/restaurant in its splendid, wild setting. Their patronage marked the beginning of the rebirth of les Baux.
Today, the spectral remains of the fortress and the Renaissance village leading to it are one of the most visited sites in France. More than one-and-a-half-million tourists a year walk through the Porte Mage, the Gate of the Magi, and climb the stony lanes leading past some remarkable 16th houses, with unadorned ground floors and first-floor windows with fluted pilasters. One of them, the Hôtel de Manville, is now the City Hall and Art Museum, another, called the Hôtel des Porcelets (piglets), so named because the woman who originally lived there had a lot of children and was on the porky side of plump, houses an important collection of works by local artist Yves Brayer (1907 – 1990). He also decorated the walls of the 17th C Chapelle des Penitents Blanc, restored in 1936. Just a few steps away, the 12th C Eglise St Vincent, with its graceful bell-tower, is the setting for the traditional blessing of a new-born lamb during midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
The narrow Rue du Trencat, hewn out of the rock, leads to the entrance of the citadel of les Baux, where a scale model gives a sense of the former grandeur of the site, with its majestic keep and towers, its chapel, trogloydyte dwellings and secret passages. Out on the wind-polished plateau, the towering ruins and giant siege engines on display still dominate the Provencal countryside below. The view stretches unimpeded all the way down to the sea and up there, it is easy to imagine the ghostly presence of the Lords of les Baux, still keeping watch over their domain. Les Baux de Provence Tourist Office: 04 90 54 34 39